By JEFF BARLIS
DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. – Just when Ruthanne Dumas thought her life couldn’t fall apart any further, she got the biggest scare of it.
A steady financial decline had left her and her two youngest daughters, Isabella and Gabriella, homeless. The girls had recently started at a new private school, thanks to education choice scholarships. And then a sudden illness landed Isabella in intensive care.
Doctors thought she might have leukemia.
“It was horrible,” Ruthanne recalled, her voice trembling.
After it turned out to be just a virus and the raw fear and panic had subsided, Isabella’s new principal and teacher arrived. They brought a garbage bag full of stuffed animals and cards from everyone in Isabella’s class. Her face lit up with joy.
“I didn’t know anyone other than my mom could care so much,” Isabella said.
That’s how it’s always been for the Dumas family at Saint Ambrose Catholic School in Deerfield Beach. Isabella wasn’t doing poorly in her neighborhood school, but Ruthanne wanted more – a smaller, safer school with a family environment. Saint Ambrose has been that and more.
She heard about it from a friend, visited and loved the efficiently laid-out campus. The main building is a 10-side polygon for grades K-5 with a social hall in the middle. Grades 6-8 are steps away. It’s hard to get lost. Principal Lisa Dodge, a police officer in the Dade County school system for 20 years, added safety measures like fences and a single point of entry.
“It was a no-brainer,” Ruthanne said.
That was six years ago. Ruthanne owned five vacation rentals, but a steady stream of hurricanes starting in 2005 left her business in steep decline. She eventually had to sell the homes at a loss.
Her husband left around that time. Her mother, who helped out financially, got sick and died.
“You had to rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “Then all of a sudden there was no Peter left, and Paul was gone. It was ridiculous. Every day was something new. I looked up one day and that was it. It was all gone. There was nothing to dip into, no savings, no house, everything was gone.”
Before they started at Saint Ambrose, Ruthanne and her daughters packed everything they had into the trunk of her car. The girls stayed with friends. Ruthanne told them she was doing the same, but she was sleeping in the front seat of that hand-painted blue Toyota Corolla. Soon, they moved into a cheap motel.
“It was so bad,” she said. “There was prostitution next door. I wouldn’t let the girls go outside. We had to get out of there. We found a hotel close to the school with a mini-fridge and a microwave. That was our base.
“Every time we would move out thinking we had someplace to stay, we always went back to the same hotel.”
They’d stay for months at a time. Ruthanne used her tax return to get an apartment, but she couldn’t keep up with the rent. One year they stayed in an old camper on a friend’s property. But they ended up back at the hotel.
Ruthanne worked as a receptionist, making $420 a week. The hotel cost $386. But there was free breakfast and friendly staffers who let the girls take yogurt, bagels, fruit and cereal for lunches and dinners.
Ruthanne thought about moving to Chicago to be with family, but she craved stability for her daughters. And that’s exactly what they got at Saint Ambrose.
Principal Dodge helped out with uniforms and waived fees. She also opened up the school’s food bank to the Dumas family and gave donated Christmas presents to the girls.
“I was kind of hesitant to talk about them, because no one here really knows their story,” Dodge said. “Behind the scenes we saw it, but none of the kids knew anything about what was going on with them. There was no difference. It’s a testament to everything – the girls, their mom, Step Up.”
The goal was normalcy, its success measured in how well the girls did in school.
They’re happy, they bring home good grades – Gabriella is an honors student – and they love to participate in the school’s many family-oriented activities.
They had different groups of friends. They’re both shy around outsiders.
“If we walked past each other, we would just give each other a look and smile, not really acknowledge each other,” Gabriella said. “I think one time I tried to hug her and she pushed me away.”
Today, Ruthanne and her daughters live in an apartment with a roommate. Gabriella is in fifth grade. Isabella is in ninth grade at a public charter school. Classes there are a lot bigger. She misses the small campus, the polygon main building, and all the warm faces at Saint Ambrose.
“The girls are just lovely, full of grace, hard-working,” said Cindy Hagaman, who has taught both. “They’re very gentle, humble people. Both of them are excellent students.”
It’s been everything Ruthanne had hoped for and more. Her daughters have stability. It was something she could feel from the first day she dropped them off at Saint Ambrose.
“This school saved us,” she said. “Sometimes I look back and wonder what we would have done without them. They were there for us so many times and continue to be a part of us.”
Like one big family.
About Saint Ambrose Catholic School
Opened in 1964 as a part of the diocese of Palm Beach, the school started with grades 1-5 and expanded to K-8 by 1967. There are 238 students, including 118 on Step Up For Students tax credit scholarships. The curriculum includes a program of computer technology, robotics, art, music, and two foreign languages. The school administers the TerraNova test annually as well as the MAP Growth test three times a year. Annual tuition is $8,250 for K-5, $8,500 for 6-7, and $8,650 for eighth grade.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.